TechMunch: Big data, micro politics

It’s been more than a month since June’s General Election, and now the dust has settled and we have emerged from beneath the overwhelming noise of political campaigning, think back to the content that graced your social media over the past few months. Brushing aside posts on unicorn hair and avocado recipes – just how many political adverts did you spot?

With the divide between the carefully curated digital world and the raw reality of real life becoming increasingly blurred, it’s important that we’re aware of how Big Data is playing an increasingly leading role in political campaigning. After all, the outcome of any election has very real implications on our daily lives.

Like the advertising and marketing industries, politicians have embraced Big Data with open arms – none more so than those across the pond. It’s no secret that President Donald Trump employed savvy digital strategies to his advantage in the US presidential election, ‘microtargeting’ swing voters on social media through Cambridge Analytica – a data-driven campaigning company which has also been tied to the EU Referendum Leave campaign, although this link has not been substantiated.

He’s not the only one – Barack Obama also employed smart digital strategies. Obama’s 2012 campaign even used TV viewer data, readily available from firms such as Nielsen, to secure advertising at a relatively low cost, while still reaching the right audience with the messages most appealing to them.

Here in the UK’s 2017 General Election, Labour ran a solid social media campaign to appeal to voters – so successful, media commentators declared Labour winners of the ‘digital election’. From aligning themselves to popular culture with #Grime4Corbyn, to posting up to 30 times day, Labour used social channels to build and mobilise its voter base. According to data from media analytics firm Social Bakers, between June 1st and June 7th, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn amassed an additional 90,000 followers on Twitter, compared with 20,000 for Conservative Leader Theresa May.

But just how do political parties know so much about us as individuals, enough to entice us with messages that feel aligned to our personal beliefs and needs? For a start, we have social media. As users of social media, we willingly upload and share our personal details online, from names and addresses to photos, and even our GPS locations. We like our favourite brands, organise events and share images of our children.

The goldmine of data that social media sites possess about each of us, as an individual, is staggering. And this knowledge about us – from where we went to school, where we shop for our groceries and how much money we earn – means our personal data is a valuable commodity, especially to those in political power.

It’s not just social media companies that gather data on us. The electoral register contains information on our ward. The office for National Statistics gathers socio-geographic data for the Census. Even our loyalty cards contain information on where we shop and what we buy. Analytics companies are also adept at running surveys on social media, which provider even more minute detail on individuals.

When analysed with today’s powerful technology– each nugget of online data builds a clear picture of who we are in the real world, and importantly, where our political leanings are likely to lie. Undecided on who to vote for? Political parties are already well aware you might be a swing voter, and they’re ready to persuade you to vote for them with targeted messages that appeal to you.

But news in May that the UK Information Commissioner’s Office has launched an inquiry into the way UK political parties use social media to target voters highlights how precarious this new territory can be.

It’s not campaigning on social media that’s the issue – it’s the way parties are potentially using personal data to ‘microtarget’ individual people with political messages based on innate knowledge of who they are. For example, as a working father with young children, you may be consistently targeted with content about additional hours of childcare promised under one party’s manifesto.

Launching the investigation, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham told The Guardian: “if political campaigns or third-party companies are able to gather up very precise digital trails to then individually target people, that is an area [where] they are going to be outside the law.”

The ICO has already contacted Cambridge Analytica – Trump’s firm of choice – and Canadian data analytics company Aggregate IQ, which provided services for Vote Leave in the EU Referendum.

The EU General Data Protection Regulation coming into force in May 2018 may start to clear things up. It’s the most stringent set of privacy laws that have ever governed the use of individual data in the digital age, and it is reshaping how companies worldwide approach data privacy. Companies and government agencies alike will need to be more transparent with how they are using personal data, while individuals will have more control of their information. It essentially gives individuals the right to disappear – to have their profiles wiped if they request. The UK will still be part of the EU in May, and the government has signaled that it will comply with the GDPR long-term.

In the meantime, look closely at what’s appearing on your social channels. Adverts, targeted content, ‘fake news’ – see how much is aligned to who you are as an individual…

Charley Mann, Senior Account Manager, Technology